Post-16 qualifications inquiry: 5 interesting things we learned from former education ministers

Witnesses were quizzed on degree apprenticeships, BTECs and getting the policy balance right between vocational and academic education

Witnesses were quizzed on degree apprenticeships, BTECs and getting the policy balance right between vocational and academic education

27 Apr 2022, 18:02

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Former education secretary Lord Blunkett and former universities minister Lord Willetts gave evidence to MPs on the House of Commons education committee today, as part of its inquiry into the future of post-16 qualifications.

In a wide-ranging session, the witnesses were quizzed on degree apprenticeships, BTECs and getting the policy balance right between vocational and academic education. 

Here are some key take aways from today’s session:

16-18 ‘heading in the wrong direction’

During the session Lord Willetts claimed that 16 to 18 education is heading in the “wrong direction”.

This was because A-levels have become “extremely traditional” with the abolition of AS levels, which was a “kind of module”, while at the same time the government looks to make higher education more modular under the lifelong loan entitlement.

He said: “There is a contrast where there is the agenda at HE for modular learning now under the lifelong loan entitlement but at 16 to 18 we are heading in exactly the opposite direction. The AS was a kind of module.

“So we’re heading for extremely traditional A-levels, and only three of them, and done in a sustained way over two years with no opting of in and out. It’s a very different model, 16 to 18 is heading in the wrong direction.”

Blunkett added: “It was sad for me that there was only a handful of universities who fought to stop the demolition and abolition of AS levels, Cambridge was one of them, when we were moving in exactly the opposite direction of what everyone was preaching.”

Cash constraints will restrict degree apprenticeship growth

Commenting on calls from committee members for a massive expansion of degree apprenticeships, former universities minister Lord Willetts warned that cash constraints are likely to restrict their growth.

“If higher level apprenticeships on this model keep on growing, we’ll end up with exactly the same dilemma as we had with conventional higher education, which is the Treasury saying ‘hang on, this is very expensive. How can we fund it?’”

His warning comes after the National Audit Office reported in 2019 on the “clear risk” the apprenticeship programme was not financially sustainable, after the average cost of training hit double the sum the government predicted in 2015.

Willetts also made the point that with degree apprenticeships there were issues around disadvantaged students and access.

“There the uncomfortable evidence is that degree apprentices are less socially diverse than students doing the same subject at university, not part of degree apprenticeship. We know from Office for Students data that degree apprentices are more white, they’re less disabled, they’re more male,” he said.

Hard to reverse trend of there being higher apprenticeships done by older people

During the session MPs heard that there is a clear trend that apprenticeships are being done by older people at a higher educational level.

“I personally think it’s very hard to see that trend being reversed,” said Willetts.

“I think this is a change in the quality and type of apprenticeships, based on the big fact that to be an apprentice you already have to have an employer who has decided to take you on as an employee with all the rights and costs that go with them.”

He called for the expansion of traineeships, sometimes referred to as pre-apprenticeships, that doesn’t require the employer to take on young people as full-time employees.

“I would start with that to plug that gap rather than try to push apprenticeships back down to 16-year-olds and back down to level two. I think they’re heading in a different direction,” he added.

BTECs offer valuable niches

Robert Halfon told witnesses that when he talks to the skills minister or the department about BTECs, they say qualifications produce poor outcomes for students.

Halfon quoted statistics from the Education Data Lab which suggest pupils who take BTECs are more likely to be in employment by age 22 compared with those who take A-levels and that they earn £800 a year more on average.

He asked the witnesses “is this your view or are there too many BTECs, is it quantity over quality?”

Lord Willetts told MPs that the applied general qualification, of which many are BTECs, is well understood by employers and has got an employer focus.

He said that while there are issues with BTECs, you can try to improve them and make sure that quality with the qualifications is high.

“But saying after 40 years, we are going to close them down and shift to this new thing called T levels, is a high-risk strategy,” he said.

Willetts said that some BTECs are niche – citing stonemasonry as an example – but that some of these niches are recognised and valuable and ministers should be careful when they say there are “too many” of the qualifications.

Stop the standoff between vocational and academic education

Education committee chair Robert Halfon kicked off the session by citing a recent report from the Tony Blair Institute which argued for expanding the proportion of young people entering higher education to 60 per cent by the end of this decade and 70 per cent by 2040.

Halfon challenged the findings of the Blair report, noting that the Institute for Fiscal Studies said one in five students lose money by going to university and the financial returns for graduates are “often underwhelming”.

He also cited research by the Centre for Social Justice which said that a graduate earns less than on average five years after graduation, than a level five apprentice earns three years after completion.

“So should we be setting a higher target for university admissions when our current university system is misaligned with the needs of the economy, and fails to deliver a return on investment for many young people?” he asked witnesses.

His question was met with a gruff response from Lord Blunkett.

“Firstly, chair, I think there’s an absolute load of garbage talked in this area, there should not be a standoff between properly equipped technical and vocational education with high rewards and the future of education in terms of higher-level skills, which can be often obtained during one’s adult life and not just when a young person leaves school,” he said.

Blunkett explained that he appreciated the IFS statistics, but some of the statistics read out by Halfon were “highly dubious, to put it mildly”.

However, he acknowledged “we desperately need hands on technical skills, partly because of a million people going back to their original homeland in Europe following Brexit, partly because of the fallout of Covid”.

And he argued the UK government should invest heavily in technical and vocational education, including T Levels, maintaining high level BTECs, national diplomas and other high quality, advanced qualifications.

But he said: “Until we actually stop the standoff between vocational and academic and realise that quite often we need both… unless we do that in the new era with new qualifications and new ways of teaching. We’ll be miles behind.”

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